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Haunted Houses: The Science Behind The Scream

Dark Hour Haunted House
More than one in five Americans plans to visit a spooky attraction this year. And they’re looking for that adrenaline rush. ";

Every Halloween, millions of people pay to be scared. Did you know professional haunted houses use high-tech scare methods to make you scream? In 2014, we visited Plano’s year-round haunted house with a neuroscientist to find out what makes a good scare. 

The creep-out factor starts before you even enter Dark Hour Haunted House’s Halloween Show as a 9-foot-tall furry bat sneaks up on a woman in line to buy tickets.

In a dark corner, an animatronic witch tells a scary story and stirs a steaming cauldron. Past a hidden entryway, there’s little light. It’s full of cobwebs -- and zombies lurk.

Fright And Science: Flight Or Fight?

Even neuroscientist Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez, who works at the University of Texas at Dallas, is spooked out by the strange growls. She says that gut reaction is your flight-or-fight response kicking in, which is controlled by a part of the brain called the amygdala.

Credit Dark Hour Haunted House
Dark Hour Haunted House

“Your heart rate increases, your lung capacity expands, you have a lot of energy,” she says. “So you can run fast and fight hard and get yourself out of danger.”

And then, a more advanced system in the brain kicks in: the prefrontal cortex.

“That’s like the supervisor," she said. "It evaluates the situation and confirms or denies that you’re in danger. That’s when you laugh and say: 'Everything’s fine. I’m having fun here.'”

The Screaming Business

More than one in five Americans plans to visit a spooky attraction this year. And they’re looking for that adrenaline rush.

“It’s easy to scare one person,” says Allen Hopps, the artistic director at Dark Hour. “When you have to scare 10,000 people, or 20,000 people, that gets very hard.”

Hopps tries to make Dark Hour different by not relying on the standard themes.

“Haunted houses will always have a red-neck, cannibal, and inbred theme,” he says. “That’s the easiest and cheapest to do because all your costumes are thrift stores, all of your makeup is blood and dirt, and you’re covered. So you’re going to see that everywhere.”

So instead of chainsaw sounds and clowns, Dark Hour has tunnels that spin as you walk through, and werewolves with fangs that glow. He also has scary tricks that are more subtle. He forces people to turn left, uses only hard angles, and makes leaves on fake trees sharp and jagged instead of round.

It’s unnerving.

Hopps also mixes in the quiet buzzing sound of bees to add to the creepy music.

An Unforgettable Release: Scream Your Fears Away

Credit Ben Porter / The University of Texas at Dallas
The University of Texas at Dallas
Zombies perform "Thriller" at Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano.

One of the rooms at Plano’s Dark Hour features an ice witch, perched on her throne. It feels like a freezer.

The cold, neuroscientist McIntyre-Rodriguez says, makes you shiver and ball up. It makes you feel more vulnerable.

In another room, an enormous man wearing a bloody butcher’s apron shuffles towards you. There’s a feast on the table. But below bunches of grapes and plates of meat, a woman pleads for help.

“A child would be very sensitive in a situation like this because they don’t have the ability to inhibit the fear response," McIntyre-Rodriguez says.

For teenagers and adults, though, the fear can be a release. Hopps says adults used to have real things to fear -- lions and tigers and bears. Today’s fears are less tangible.

“The stuff people are afraid of now, you’re not allowed to scream at or cry over -- it's traffic and mortgage and taxes," Hopps said. "So we come in, and as haunted house actors, we put a face on it. You can peg whatever fear you have on us and scream it away.”

For nearly a half hour.

In a house of horror, science can only help so much. There are no shortcuts. You can only close your eyes.

Take A Spooky Tour Of 8 Freaky Haunted Houses

Ready to get your spook on? Late October is prime time to take tours of dirty, dark haunted houses, filled with cobwebs, ghosts, mysterious noises, bloodcurdling screams and kooky creatures -- if you dare. Take this spine-chilling tour of some of the spookier haunted houses.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.